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Illustration by Johanna Walderdorff

Bad Hats, Riots, and the Unifying Phenomenon of a Truly Stupid Meme

A 19th century trend for tearing off unfashionable hats and throwing them in the gutter shows how stupid trends can bring us together.
23 March 2020, 10:30am

This article appears in VICE Magazine's Stupid Issue, which is dedicated to the entertaining, goofy, and just plain dumb. It features stories celebrating ridiculous ideas, trends, and products; pieces arguing that unabashed stupidity can be a great part of life; and articles calling out the bad side of stupidity. Click HERE to subscribe to the print edition.

It’s unclear precisely when the hats began to unceremoniously leave the heads. But as best we can tell, the hats—a whole flock of them, taking flight from their nests of hair, sailing through the air, and landing, with a chorus of squelches, in the gutter—seem to have first become airborne in the early 1800s in London.

The tale of the craze comes to us from Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, a classic encyclopedia of various forgotten follies, trends, and crazes, first published by Charles MacKay in 1841. MacKay wrote that Londoners of his time had become seized with a desire to pass judgment on one another’s hats and to humiliate wearers accordingly:

“What a shocking bad hat!” was the phrase that was next in vogue. No sooner had it become universal, than thousands of idle but sharp eyes were on the watch for the passenger whose hat showed any signs, however slight, of ancient service. Immediately the cry arose, and, like the war-whoop of the Indians, was repeated by a hundred discordant throats.

The hat wearers who found their headgear deemed “shocking bad,” MacKay wrote, did well to take the teasing good-humoredly, or at least quietly:

He who showed symptoms of ill-feeling at the imputations cast upon his hat, only brought upon himself redoubled notice. The mob soon perceive whether a man is irritable, and, if of their own class, they love to make sport of him. When such a man, and with such a hat, passed in those days through a crowded neighbourhood, he might think himself fortunate if his annoyances were confined to the shouts and cries of the populace. The obnoxious hat was often snatched from his head, and thrown into the gutter by some practical joker, and then raised, covered with mud, upon the end of a stick, for the admiration of the spectators, who held their sides with laughter, and exclaimed in the pauses of their mirth, “Oh! what a shocking bad hat! .... What a shocking bad hat!” Many a nervous, poor man, whose purse could but ill spare the outlay, doubtless purchased a new hat before the time, in order to avoid exposure in this manner.

It was, in other words, a meme; one that formed long before the internet and spread not through clicks but through more mysterious forms of transmission. Memes are a form of social cohesion, a shared agreement about what’s funny, what’s weird, what’s beneath contempt. They also encourage people to replicate a certain behavior, mapping that shared sense of humor or disdain onto the world. Those impulses are extremely durable: Roughly 200 years later, in 2015, the shocking bad hat trend found a close cousin in “What are those?,” a rallying cry against offensively ugly or drab footwear in all its forms.

The original video that sparked the “What are those?” trend was created by a Bay Area man named Young Busco, née Brandon Moore. He told VICE at the time that he’d been hanging out with a friend named Myesha when a police officer wrote her a ticket for supposedly drinking in public. Things escalated, and Myesha was arrested; as she was hustled into the patrol car, Busco had just one question for the arresting officer and his bafflingly chunky, hideous, Frankenstein’s monster–esque work boots: “What are thoooooooose?”he howled, panning down, as the officer turned away in apparent confusion and dismay. “What are those?” took over the internet for a season, culminating with a kid asking the question of none other than Michael Jordan, a shoe seller and athlete of some renown.

Back in pre-internet London, MacKay reported that the origins of the shocking bad hat meme were in fact fundamentally political. The London borough of Southwark had recently been through a “hotly contested election,” he wrote, in which one of the candidates “was an eminent hatter.” In canvassing voters, when he met one whom he desired to bribe, he’d tell them, unsubtly: “What a shocking bad hat you have got; call at my warehouse, and you shall have a new one!”

“Upon the day of election this circumstance was remembered,” MacKay wrote, “and his opponents made the most of it, by inciting the crowd to keep up an incessant cry of ‘What a shocking bad hat!’ all the time the honourable candidate was addressing them. From Southwark the phrase spread over all London, and reigned, for a time, the supreme slang of the season.”

There, too, we see a tie to “What are those?” In the original video, Young Busco wasn’t just mocking the footwear of anyone at all; he was, specifically, mocking an agent of the state at a moment when the officer was violently asserting its power. Memes are stupid, but they are also political, in the same way that our personal lives and preferences sometimes join those two things, with nary a seam showing through.

Taking the powerful down a peg, from the head down, has often been a tool of the dispossessed, says the author Luc Sante, a chronicler of the street life of New York and Paris. “Back in the days when men wore hats, it was always something that street urchins did,” he told VICE, “knocking hats off pompous guys who wore pompous hats.” It is, he said, “a class thing. The victims are of the ruling, upper, managerial class—whatever you want to call it—and these are working-class indigent youths. They’re trying to balance the scales. They resent the fact they’re being stepped on every day of their lives.”

A love for pronouncing something dumb and bad has shown itself elsewhere to be a cohesive experience: Sante wrote in_Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York_ about talent shows around 1905 at Miner’s Theater, a legendary venue in the extraordinary rough-and-tumble Bowery. (The neighborhood was, at the time, so rough that tattoo artists and barbers often had a side hustle as “black eye fixers,” making men who’d had exciting evenings look more presentable for work.)

Sante outlined a few popular acts at Miner’s (jugglers, clay modelers who made speedy live renderings, and, regrettably, a blackface comedian in a red plaid suit). But most popular of all were acts so bad that they were booted offstage.

It was “an enterprising stage manager at Miner’s,” Sante wrote, who came up with the hook, a method to get failed acts to vacate the premises. It began as a “stage prop shepherd’s crook lashed to a pole” and it caught the popular imagination with unimaginable speed:

“Give ’im the hook” took barely twenty-four hours to establish itself as the crowd’s favorite line. Soon it was a cliché and stage managers were kept busy hatching entertaining alternatives: dousing performers with seltzer from spray bottles, carrying them out on stretchers manned by burly stagehands. The hook and its variations became a reliable source of audience jollification at theaters everywhere, so that managers began to engage in something like inverse talent hunts, as truly disastrous acts achieved perverse renown.

Again, the joy of declaring, as a body, that something sucked was the strongest social glue of all. Sante pointed out that the same phenomenon played out to its logical endpoint in the beloved 70s and 80s game show The Gong Show: People began to try deliberately to look stupid. “People would show up and do the dumbest things and present themselves in the stupidest ways,” he said. “Ridicule would get you a prize. Human nature rose to the occasion.”

As with all memes, shocking bad hats eventually wore themselves out. Sometimes a meme becomes tiresome through overuse; other times, it sparks a riot across the ocean, with multiple severe injuries. In the early 1920s, the trend of mocking or destroying unfashionable hats spread to the United States, where it was considered verboten to wear a straw hat after September 15. Violators were dealt with perhaps more harshly than was strictly necessary; as Justin Peters wrote in Slate in 2013, one 1910 press account from Pittsburgh stated that police “had to interfere in more than one instance to protect straw-lidded pedestrians.”

The New York Times reported that thousands of youths “ran riot in various parts of the city,” seizing and smashing the offending hats. The incident began on September 13, when a couple of kids had decided to get a jump on the deadline and begin attacking passersby early; when they unwisely targeted a group of dockworkers, according to the New York Tribune,they were met with returned fire, and soon enough a roving citywide melee had formed, culminating in a gigantic riot two days later, on the 15th.

“A favorite practice of the gangsters,” the Times wrote, “was to arm themselves with sticks, some with nails at the tip, and compel men wearing straw hats to run a gauntlet. Sometimes the hoodlums would hide in doorways and dash out, ten or twelve strong, to attack one or two men.” On Christopher Street, the paper added, “attackers lined up along the surface car [streetcar] tracks and yanked straw hats off the heads of passengers as the cars passed.” Even plainclothes police officers were similarly attacked; the streets, the paper reported, were strewn with broken straw hats.

The vandals ran the gamut in age; some were as young as 12 and 13 and had to be arraigned in Children’s Court. Some straw hat victims were beaten when they fought back, and at least one, Harry Gerber, 25, had to be sent to the hospital.

The trend, however brutally, enforced a prevailing social norm. That same night, according to the Times, hat stores were kept open late and were crowded “with purchasers of fall hats.”